Why Not Ask?

Here’s a good question to ask any seasoned, serious journalist: What’s the best question to ask in an interview? It would be interesting to collect 10 or 20 of the best journalistic questions to keep handy in your toolbox.

My colleague Bob DeMaria, now retired, once helped me with a video project interviewing veteran journalists in Roanoke a number of years ago about the art of the interview. They had a variety of tips, but one suggestion they all agreed on was that your last question should be this: “Do you have anything else to add?” or “Anything I didn’t ask?” . . . followed by a long pause, if necessary.

Another good question is “How do you know that?” I heard this one from Alicia C. Shepard, then-ombudsman for National Public Radio and author of a terrific book, Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate. She said the other good question to ask is this: “What does that mean?”

Another visitor to our department at W&L a few years ago, Carol Costello, now a CNN news anchor, told my students that a good question is not only “Why?” – that old chestnut from the “five Ws,” but “Why now?”

Such questions – “How do you know?” “What does that mean?” etc. – make journalists indispensable, especially in these days of surface information and spin. It gets at what I heard another veteran journalist say was her driving question when she was executive editor of the New York Times: “The story behind the story.” That was from Jill Abramson, talking to the journalism-professors’ annual conference in August.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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